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William Safire: Jubilant V-I Day

By William Safire
Op-Ed Columnist, New York Times

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WASHINGTON Like newly freed Parisians tossing flowers at allied tanks; like newly freed Germans tearing down the Berlin wall; like newly freed Russians pulling down the statue of the hated secret police chief in Dzerzinsky Square, the newly freed Iraqis toppled the figure of their tyrant and ground their shoes into the face of Saddam Hussein.

All these pictures flow together in the farrago of freedom's victories over despotism in the past two generations. Just as video of human suffering understandably triggers demonstrations against any war, unforgettable images of the jubilation of enslaved people tasting liberty drives home the wisdom of just wars.

Even in the flush of triumph, doubts will be raised. Where are the supplies of germs and poison gas and plans for nukes to justify pre-emption? (Freed scientists will lead us to caches no inspectors could find.) What about remaining danger from Baathist torturers and war criminals' forming pockets of resistance and plotting vengeance? (Their death wish is our command.)

The most insulting question is this: considering their Islamist religious schisms and tribal hatreds, their tradition of monarchy and obedience to dictatorial regimes, their turbulent "street," easily inflamed by demagogues how can any population of Arabs be entrusted with democracy?

The answer to that is the experiment on which the Iraqis are now embarked. Most start with the advantages of being literate, not fundamentalist and extravagantly oil-rich.

If Iraqis are able to adopt a system of free enterprise and representative government, they will become the center of an arc of freedom from Turkey in the north to Israel in the south (with Lebanon freed from Syrian occupation, if France will liberate the state it created). Egypt, the largest Arab nation, could not long resist such a tidal wave of liberty.

A parade of former U.S. ambassadors to Arab nations pooh-pooh this vision, deriding the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz idealists as the four horsemen of hubris.

But consider one example of a big segment of Iraq's population that proved itself willing to ally itself wholeheartedly with the coalition, and showed under fire its eagerness to make sacrifices for its freedom.

Nobody came out of this war more nobly than the 3.5 million long-suffering Kurds of Iraq. After Gulf War I, we at first left them to the poison-gas savagery of Saddam, then expiated that sin by provided them air cover for the next decade. In that time, this ethnic group built a model state: a lively parliament, schools, hospitals, a thriving economy built on farming and a little smuggling on the side.

Their rival leaders, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, realized that what they call "our friends to the north" the Turks suspected a plot to declare an independent Kurdistan, which might encourage Turkey's Kurdish minority to break away.

Because the U.S. believed that we would get Turkey's cooperation against Saddam, we refused to arm the Kurds, even though they were under attack from terrorists affiliated with Al Qaeda. Despite this, when we launched our invasion, the 70,000 Kurdish pesh merga troops volunteered to serve in the coalition under the command of our small airborne units in the north. The Kurds were and still are the only indigenous force fighting against Saddam's regime.

One tragic test of loyalty came last week when one of our aircraft mistakenly bombed a convoy carrying pesh merga to engage Saddam's troops. Nineteen Kurds died, with two of the Barzani clan wounded. A Barzani aide, Hoshyar Zabari, told me by cellphone afterward: "We do not blame anyone. This happens in war. We are fighting together for our freedom."

That's an ally. The Kurds have decided their cultural autonomy and their future safety lies not in independence but as part of Iraq's new confederation, with its capital Baghdad. "We will always retain our Kurdish identity, but we are Iraqis," emphasizes Barham Salih, Mr. Talabani's prime minister.

My guess is that the urbane Mr. Talabani will serve in Iraq's national government, with the locally rooted Mr. Barzani in its regional capital in the north. They have learned how democracy works, and have earned a seat at the governing table. They also know, and will bear witness to their Iraqi compatriots in this great experiment, that the U.S. and Britain are freedom's best friends.

William Safire is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times.

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